Mental illness has an alarming power to isolate, and convince its sufferers that nobody else's brain does such terrifying and inscrutable things. Often, it's only by reading the stories of others that people can understand the commonality of their experiences; though no two instances of mental illness are identical, there's a profound power in recognising your struggle in another's. These five books about mental health might spark that reassuring recognition, or simply expand your understanding of the diversity of mental illness.
My own moment of familiarity came with David Adam's The Man Who Couldn't Stop, the first book I read that seemed to reflect aspects of my own experience of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Too often, I saw my illness reduced to stereotypes about cleanliness and meticulous organisation; all too rarely did I read about the obsessive panic that motivates compulsive behaviours. Reading about Adam's experience, and the case studies he presents, felt like something dissolving, something that convinced me I was impossibly and insurmountably different.
The following books span illnesses from depression to addiction to schizophrenia; you might recognise your experience in them, or relinquish stereotypes you once held about mental illness after reading. Whatever you take from them, they're very much worthy of a read.
'The Man Who Couldn't Stop' by David Adam (2014)
As mentioned above, David Adam's The Man Who Couldn't Stop was the first book that felt familiar to me in its depiction of obsessive-compulsive disorder, despite the vast differences between Adam's experience and mine. Science writer Adam writes both on his own illness, which manifests most significantly as a debilitating fear of contracting HIV/AIDS, and the history of the disease. As the Guardian reports, the book "takes in traditional psychiatry...evolutionary psychology, genetics, aversion therapy, philosophy, social history, religion, neuroscience, anthropology and even zoology."
Adam also incorporates significant case studies, both famous and not (Hans Christian Andersen's obsessive fear of being buried alive spoke to me). His comprehensive study dispels the myths and comic stereotypes surrounding a frequently incapacitating disease, and will prove refreshing (though potentially triggering) to people with OCD who are tired of seeing their illness misrepresented.
'The Colour of Madness' by Dr. Samara Linton & Rianna Walcott (eds, 2018)
Anthology The Colour of Madness, compiled by editors Dr Samara Linton and Rianna Walcott, is an urgent response to the inequality faced by BAME people with mental health issues, for whom the struggle of living with mental illness and its associated stigma is compounded by racial discrimination. The Guardian reports that 93% of BAME respondents to a survey by Time to Change "said they had experienced discrimination in everyday life due to their mental health difficulties", while 49% "had faced discriminatory behaviour from mental health staff."
Young black men, the paper says, are far more likely than other groups to be sectioned and physically restrained; moreover, BAME people are less likely to be offered talking therapies and more likely to be prescribed medication alone. The Colour of Madness comprises essays, fiction, poetry and more; Dr Samara Linton calls it "the opportunity to create a platform for people from BAME communities to shape conversations about mental health in the UK," while Rianna Walcott notes "the need for more BAME healthcare professionals who are sensitive to contemporary BAME needs and issues, and who are able to recognise that trauma may look different on a non-white face."
'The Recovering' by Leslie Jamison (2018)
Leslie Jamison is a writer whose every line I've clung to since The Empathy Exams, her astonishing 2014 essay collection. In The Recovering, she turns to her own experience of alcohol addiction (preceded by an eating disorder) and sobriety. Integral to her journey to sobriety is her preoccupation — and a broader societal preoccupation — with alcohol and creativity. Were her favourite authors, Jamison asked, inspired by their addiction to alcohol? Can creativity and sobriety co-exist?
Jamison worries over the work of Raymond Carver, Jean Rhys, Elizabeth Bishop and more in her quest to answer the questions that plague her. Ultimately, in recovery from addiction (attained courtesy of Alcoholics Anonymous), Jamison finds "relief from [her] own plotline," as the New Yorker writes. The magazine continues, "We perhaps have no writer better on the subject of psychic suffering and its consolations," a statement I emphatically second.
'No One Cares About Crazy People' by Ron Powers (2017)
Two of Ron Powers' sons were diagnosed with schizophrenia, and Powers tells their story alongside the history of mental illness and its treatment in No One Cares About Crazy People. "Sweeping exposition and finely grained narrative weave together," the New York Times says, as Powers details the struggle of his family to protect their children while exploring the mental health crisis in America today. Emails from sons Kevin and Dean provide vivid insight into the experience of schizophrenia, while excruciating figures (there are "10 million Americans with mental illness and only 45,000 inpatient psychiatric beds", the New York Times reports) expose the profound failure of the American healthcare system to treat mental health issues.
This isn't just an American story — the Guardian reports that in 2018, there are 30% fewer beds in the UK for mental health patients than there were in 2009. Powers' book will infuriate and galvanise readers, while elucidating one of the most misunderstood and stigmatised mental illnesses.
'Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life' by Yiyun Li (2017)
Author Yiyun Li's dreamlike Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life will mesmerise those who've exhausted the supply of chronological memoirs about mental illness. As NPR writes, Li "does not attempt to follow the plot of her life...as much as she allows herself to drift from memory to memory". She writes about growing up in Beijing, about her relationship with her mother, about her motivation for writing solely in English, and about the depression she describes as "a fracture that never fully heals".
Her experience of suicidal depression, for which she was repeatedly hospitalised, is woven into reflections on the authors who inspire and soothe her — "Katherine Mansfield, Stefan Zweig, William Trevor, Marianne Moore, Ivan Turgenev and others," as the Washington Post says. Like these authors linger in Li's mind, Li will remain in yours.